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DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services

Citation. 489 U.S. 189 (1989)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioner is a boy who was beaten and permanently injured by his father, with whom he lived. Respondents are social workers and other local officials who received complaints that petitioner was being abused by his father and had reason to believe that this was the case, but nonetheless did not act to remove petitioner from his father’s custody. Petitioner sued respondents claiming that their failure to act deprived him of his liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

There is nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself that requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors.


Petitioner Joshua DeShaney was born in 1979. In 1980, a Wyoming court granted his parents a divorce and awarded custody of Joshua to his father, Randy DeShaney. The father shortly moved to Neenah, a city located in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, taking the infant Joshua with hi, There he entered into a second marriage, which also ended in divorce. The Winnebago County authorizes first learned that Joshua DeShaney might be a victim of child abuse, when his father’s second wife complained to the police, at the time of their divorce, that he had previously hit the boy causing marks and was a prime case for child abuse. The Winnebago County Department of Social Services interviewed the father, but he denied the accusations and DSS did not pursue them further.  Joshua was admitted to a local hospital with multiple bruises and abrasions. The team convened by the County decided that there was insufficient evidence of child abuse to retain Joshua in the custody of the court. The team did, however, decide to recommend several measures to protect Joshua, including enrolling him in a preschool program.


Does a State’s failure to protect a minor child against his father’s private violence constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?


No, the Due Process Clause does not require the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors. The Clause is phrases as a limitation on the State’s power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security. It forbids the State itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, but its language cannot fairly be extended to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means.


Justice Brennan and Blackmun

Brennan: It belies reality to contend that the State stood by and did nothing with respect to Joshua. Through its child-protection program, the State actively intervened in Joshua’s life and by virtue of this intervention, acquired ever more certain knowledge that Joshua was in grave danger.

Blackmun: Victim of repeated attacks by an irresponsible, bullying father and abandoned by respondents who placed him in a dangerous predicament and who knew or learned what was going on, and yet did nothing. It is a sad commentary upon American life, and constitutional principles that this child now is assigned to live out the remainder of his life profoundly retarded. Joshua and his mother deserve the opportunity to have the facts of their case considered in light of the constitutional protection.


The Due Process Clauses generally confer no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government itself may not deprive the individual. Although the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause afford protection against unwarranted government interference, it does not confer an entitlement to such governmental aid as may be necessary to realize all the advantages of that freedom. If the Due Process Clause does not require the State to provide its citizens with particular protective services, it follows that the State cannot be held liable under the Clause for injuries that could have been averted had it chosen to provide them. As a general matter, then, a State’s failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.

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